Joe Langley, a dapper gentleman of 79, had worked as a car-guard outside the Playhouse theatre in the inner-city of Durban for the past 20 years of his life. Be it a matinee or a late-night cabaret, Joe was always there—as much a fixture of the pavement as the nearby fire hydrant—dressed in his Sunday best, sitting in his deck chair, and watching over theatre patron’s cars.
Usually within five minutes of parking, greeting Joe, and dashing to either a rehearsal or performance, he would manage to regale me with a brief episode from his furiously lived and richly remembered life. He was one of the most accomplished and compulsive storytellers I would ever have the fortune of meeting.
More often than not, Joe’s monologues tended to be more engrossing than the ones that played upon the stages of the theatre, and there were many times where I found myself sneaking out at interval to sit with him on the sidewalk instead. Over time, I began to scribble his stories in notebooks, notating the script of his life complete with his meticulously narrated stage directions.
“Oh the stars,” he would say, recalling his many nights spent at sea when he worked as a whaler in the 60’s. “We travelled to the ends of the earth on that ship and I tell you, some nights, we touched heaven out there, my friend. To my dying day, I’ll never forget those stars…stars above and stars below…it was like we were drifting through the center of the universe.”
I was dismayed to learn that over his twenty years of service, Joe had never once attended a show inside the theatre. The ticket prices were more then he could afford and an idle afternoon’s entertainment would set him back on his room’s rent for the night.
Then Joe’s health took a turn for the worse and he was admitted to a local hospice. The day before he passed I was fortunate to steal him away for an afternoon. I wheeled him into the Playhouse theatre and we sat together in the vast auditorium as the orchestra tuned up and house lights dimmed.
As the curtain rose, Joe watched his memories unfold on the stage. Before him an animated museum of his life plays out, accompanied by an orchestra in full flight. The cast consists of actors, singers, dancers, musicians, all friends and artists who had interacted with Joe on a daily basis in the parking bays, be it on their way to rehearsals or performances at the theatre. Together the company craft and recreate scenes from his life, every embellishment intact. Joe is spun through time and memory. Old Joe tap dances with young Joe in glorious musical numbers reminiscent of the MGM ones he grew up admiring as a child at the Bioscope in District Six.
“This is my story,” he says clasping his hands to his mouth. “These people are telling my blerry story!”
Each recollection re-imagined and re-enacted: his stint as a car-guard, gangster, a diamond smuggler, carpenter, the first time he shot a man and realized that life wasn’t quite like the movies, that it had repercussions lasting beyond the rolling of the credits, his many narrow escapes from death, the first time he set eyes on his wife in a District Six dance hall (with Billie Holliday playing in the background), the forced removals, the birth of his precious children. His seafaring adventures are told via an exquisitely realized shadow-play.
For the finale the theatre goes dark and a breathtaking image is conjured: a thousand suspended light bulbs flicker over a vast mirrored stage.
“En nou?” he says with tears in his eyes.
“Those, Joe… those are your stars,” I whisper.
He clutches my hand as the curtain falls.